When players can convince the final boss of a game to blow his own Turian brains out by manipulating the dialogue mechanic of the game, players are not only playing the cut scene; they are winning it, and winning feels good. Mass Effect’s dialogue selection mechanic is an innovative way to simultaneously deliver game play and story with minimal sacrifice to either. ***In general, game play suffers from the need to have cut scenes at all, but overall, games benefit from having a great story. Generally speaking, when game play has grown stale, the story can incite players to finish a game that is no longer fun to play (See my post on immersion). This is somewhat true in the case of Mass Effect, but the game play never really became stale for me, although it is somewhat repetitive, but I digress***
So, although cut scenes hinder game play, the game benefits over all. In Mass Effect, Bioware was able to minimize the interruption of game play by making the dialogue cut scenes playable. Yes, this has been done before in numerous game (KOTOR, Baldur’s Gate, etc), but none have ever been this successful, in my opinion.
Allow me to break down why I think the dialogue selection mechanic is by far the most successful up to date.
It keeps you awake: this one is pretty basic, but the fact that players have some agency in the cut scenes makes the longer sections of dialogue easier to pay attention to simply because the player chooses how they want to respond. Moreover, the options capture the gist of what Commander Shepard is going to say without forcing you to read it word-for-word, choose it, and then hear Shepard say it word-for-word. Instead, Shepard’s spoken lines are substantially different from the options, and this keeps dialogue interesting. The fact that most of the writing is really well done works in tandem with this aspect of the game to achieve 3 things: entertainment, exposition, and (limited) agency. If you’re playing a renegade Commander Shepard, the dialogue is going to be really interesting because this version of the character is a xenophobic, elitist, violent douchebag, and his lines are pretty saucy.
Choose what you want to know: There’s a ton of depth to this game, and if players more inclined to play a sports game were forced-fed this galaxy’s worth of information, they would hate it for sure. What the game does instead is disperse its depth and make it optional, so not only do you get to choose what you’re character says, you get to choose the information you want to know, to a large extent. What’s really great about this is that the information is presented enticingly. During dialogue, and NPC can allude to some aspect of the game’s back story, and players have the option to inquire further, or just continue to move the conversation forward. The way that extra content is presented compels those that are curious to inquire further, and if a player finds that it’s boring, they have only themselves to blame. However, the content is hardly ever boring. Most of the time it’s really interesting, and this again points back to the awesome writing that was done for the game.
Reader, can you imagine these cut scenes without dialogue options? that would be dreadfully boring. I wouldn’t have made it past the citadel.
Bow-chicka-wow-winning: So the relationship aspect of this game works somewhat like a dating simulation, and it’s pretty fun. The romantic interests are all fairly appealing, and interacting with them through the dialogue mechanic becomes an added challenge to the game. Personally, I think Ashley’s character is really well done because she’s a tease, but she’s also somewhat reserved. She keeps the player guessing, so when she actually gives Shepard a sign that the relationship is moving in the right direction, it feels like you’re winning. I say feel because it’s actually really easy to manipulate the relationships, and the player ultimately hooks up with somebody, unless they completely mess up, so players are not actually winning, but it sure does make them feel cool. And when the romance finally comes to a climax, that really feels like winning.
Perfectly good at being bad: One critique of the dialogue mechanic is that it’s too easy to recognize the good, neutral, or bad options, and therefore the game doesn’t force you to interrogate these options and consider their possible outcomes. I think this criticism makes a point, but ultimately fails because the options only give players a gist of what Shepard will say, so if they don’t know which response is the paragon (good) response, then they’re gambling/ hoping that Shepard will say what they want. Moreover, in “real” life, it’s not that hard to recognize good, neutral, or bad decisions. Of course, there are always uncertainties, but if you have a sense of right and wrong, then its usually not that difficult. So, I don’t see why we would want the game to make these options more obscure.
What Mass Effect does really well in terms of Paragon-Renegade options is that it makes the renegade options range from really tempting to really regrettable. For example, in Eden Prime, when Shepard encounters the loony Dr. Manuel, it’s really tempting to clean his clock (beat him up). I had chosen to play a paragon Shepard, and this option was clearly renegade, but I couldn’t resist. It was wrong, but it felt so right. The game does this a number of times, especially when you’re dealing with the council, but sometimes Shepard’s renegade lines are so messed up that I would instantly regret being tempted by the dark side. So, although the options are simple to recognize, the situations that the game places you in incite you to make a choice that goes against your chosen play style. For these reasons, I see the simplicity of the options as a strong point of the dialogue mechanic.
THE REALLY GOOD STUFF in case you’ve skimmed down…
Your options affect game play big time:
Mostly, the dialogue options affect the way the story plays out, but in some cases, it has a direct impact on game play, and this is my favorite aspect of the dialogue mechanic. The first instance of this occurs on Eden Prime. When I encountered some farmers hiding from the geth, I had the option of taking their story at face value, or interrogating them a bit. In reality, they were weapon smugglers, and this dialogue ultimately allowed me to use one of the charm options.
***(Side note) Commander Shepard has two skills that impact the dialogue scenes: Charm and Intimidate. Developing either of these skills allows you to choose exclusive dialogue options. Charm options are in a blue font, and intimidate options are in red. Being able to select these options also nets the player major paragon or renegade points. I focused on charm, and every time those blue options would pop-up, it felt like winning.***
So if the player charms or intimidates the smugglers, they’ll give Shepard a sweet pistol that’s much better than any of the ones available now or in the next few worlds. This weapon significantly affects game play because I felt like a bad-ass when I was taking down geth in one or two shots. I felt like I played and won that particular cut scene, and the feeling of winning carried over into every kill I had with that gun (exaggeration, but w/e). It’s worth mentioning that there are two occasions when the lives of certain party members depend entirely on how the player manipulates the dialogue mechanic, and while these scenes were pretty cool, the choices are imposed on the player and this limits the sensation of agency.
There are a few more examples like the one about the gun, but I’ll skip to the most dramatic one. HUGE SPOILER WARNING.
When you finally catch up to Saren, the rogue specter you’ve been chasing across 4-5 worlds, you can actually charm him into killing himself through the dialogue mechanic of the game. This, in my opinion, is far more satisfying than actually fighting him. From early on in the game, the goal has been to find out what Saren is up to and put and end to it. Turns out that he’s a formidable rogue specter/ cyborg turian/ traitor who’s bent on helping a race of sentient machines wipe out all civilized species in the galaxy, and commander Shepard talks him into killing himself. Did I feel like I won that cut scene? Hell yes. I felt like that was the best and most interesting possible outcome for that interaction, and I achieved it through manipulation of the dialogue mechanic. I exerted my agency as a player and achieved desirable, surprising, and dramatic result. # Winning. ( I charmed Saren, but the player in this video uses intimidation).
(Also, you have to fight Saren’s body after Sovereign possesses it, but w.e.)
The point is that…the delivery of narrative exposition in games has been a stumbling block for game designers who want provide both immersive game play and a gripping story, but through innovative approaches such as Mass Effect’s dialogue mechanic, game designers provide players an integrated game-play and narrative experience. Although it seems simple on the surface, the creators of Mass Effect were able to overcome issues traditionally associated with dialogue cut scenes while enhancing the overall gaming experience in unexpected ways. This kind of innovative thinking shows the potential for even better integration of game-play and narrative in the future of video games.